First gen teacher hopes to make a difference

Emerson Elementary School teacher Laura Carranza, the daughter of immigrant parents, is the first in her family to graduate with a college degree. She is among only 5% of Latinos older than age 25 who earn master's degrees.

Photos by Ralph Freso/Friday afternoon slideshow

Stepping onto the Grand Canyon University campus for the first time might as well have been stepping onto Wrigley Field or Carnegie Hall for Laura Carranza.

“I remember thinking, what a dreamy school. Everything was so flashy and brand new,” said Carranza of touring the campus during her senior year in 2013 at Carl Hayden High School — a school just 4 miles from those flashy, brand new buildings.

She remembered the awe she felt on that tour — GCU was the first college she ever visited. But she also remembered thinking how out of reach anything flashy, brand new and dreamy could be, especially for a first-generation American of immigrant parents who grew up in west Phoenix.

But, as it turns out, that dream wasn’t out of reach for Carranza, who not only earned her bachelor’s degree from GCU but, on Friday, stepped on campus once again to receive her master’s degree in educational leadership.

The fifth- and sixth-grade math and science teacher was among the College of Education students who walked across the GCU Arena stage in the last of five Fall Commencement ceremonies over three days honoring nontraditional students.

Carranza, who earned her master's degree in educational leadership, wants to make a difference in her community and bring more resources to her Title I school. (Contributed photo)

Growing up in a single-parent household for a time, Carranza said her mom couldn’t always be there when she and her siblings needed her. But she did gift her children with opportunity.

“My mom, because she knew that she was missing that piece of being able to help us with homework, she was always like, ‘Go to school. Pay attention. Don’t miss school,” said Carranza.

Carranza took those opportunities.

“That was my motivation — I wanted to make my mom proud. Her words of encouragement are what got me through, and understanding and knowing that, yeah, she did leave behind all she had, and because we were born on American soil, we had that opportunity. Those opportunities were what was going to get us by — opportunities that not everybody gets.”

Carranza, who started her educational journey at Phoenix College, always knew she wanted to go into teaching. One of the online bachelor’s programs she looked into was at GCU, even though, as a military wife, she had since moved from Phoenix to North Carolina with her husband.

When she was first accepted into GCU, she said the University wasn’t open to students on the East Coast at the time who were pursuing their education degrees because they wouldn’t be able to meet their clinical hours through GCU.

“But — I’m not even kidding — toward the end of that year, I got an email that they were accepting candidates for students who were interested in still pursuing teaching.”

Carranza was in, thanks in part to a scholarship she received as a military spouse.

Carranza gets her pregraduation photo taken before Friday afternoon's Fall Commencement.

“I always thank my husband for my bachelor’s and my master’s,” she said. “But he always tells me, ‘You did all the hard work. You stayed up late at night doing those assignments. I only gave you the opportunity.’”

She also credits the University’s military division for helping her afford college, something she never thought she could do.

“They were just so willing to work with me,” Carranza said. “I wasn’t able to do that with any other university, because I did look around at other schools. Nobody offered the same support or caring for military families like GCU did. It was just unmatchable.”

Not that Carranza didn’t put in the hard work, as her husband told her. She got a job to pay the part of her college bill the scholarship didn’t cover.

“That was something I took pride in — paying it on my own,” she said.

She also takes pride in paving the way as the first in her family to go to college.

It's a hard role being first generation. I feel we're always geared to be the ones to make the mistakes, and everybody's just looking up to you. I'm also the first one in my family to buy a home. It's a big responsibility. It's a big role.

Laura Carranza, master's degree recipient in educational leadership

“It’s a hard role being first generation,” said Carranza, the middle child in a family of five siblings whose younger siblings are living with her. “I feel we’re always geared to be the ones to make the mistakes, and everybody’s just looking up to you. I’m also the first one in my family to buy a home. It’s a big responsibility. It’s a big role.”

And it’s one of the reasons Carranza decided to pursue her master’s degree, though serving as an example to her siblings isn’t the only reason.

Carranza, who has since moved back to Arizona, teaches at Emerson Elementary School, a Title I school in the Phoenix Elementary School District. It’s the same school district she attended when she was growing up in Phoenix.

“I think what motivated me more was wanting to give back to my community and just making a change in the schools,” said Carranza, who hopes to transition into the administrative side of teaching.

It’s important to her to affect the classroom, and ultimately, students’ lives, by bringing more resources to those Title I schools. Carranza wants to know how to financially run a school, apply for state grants and tap into funding from other sources “so the kids do have what they need,” she said, and “have the same opportunities or better opportunities than we had growing up.”

Carranza receives her diploma from Provost Dr. Randy Gibb.

Carranza ultimately wants to become a college professor, maybe right here at GCU, the first university she visited and the place that gave her some of those opportunities her immigrant mother hoped she would have in this country.

“I feel, honestly, very accomplished,” Carranza said of earning her master’s, something she acknowledges not many Latinos do. According to, 5% of Latinos older than age 25 earn their master’s degree compared to 45% of their white counterparts. “Just to feel I’m part of that little, small percentage makes me feel like I’m making a difference in the world.”

GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.


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